Babar the Elephant began as a bedtime story told to Laurent and Mathieu, sons of French author and illustrator Jean de Brunhoff, by their mother, Cécile. The children begged their father to create illustrations for the story and the resulting book became the first in a series of hugely popular children’s stories, which are still enjoyed by children today. Francis Poulenc’s accompaniment to The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant was also inspired by children – he improvised some music to entertain the granddaughter of one of his cousins, and by 1945 he had completed the work, dedicating it to “my little cousins Sophie, Sylvie, Benoît, Florence and Delphine Périer; Yvan, Alain, Marie-Christine and Marguerite-Marie Villotte; And my little friends Marthe Bosredon and André Lecœur, in memory of Brive” (Francis Poulenc). The result is an enchanting and engaging accompaniment to a favourite book of childhood, premiered by the composer himself in 1946.
In this delightful new recording on the Nimbus label, one of our best-loved actresses and raconteurs, Miriam Margolyes, narrates this favourite children’s story. Her voice is familiar to many, and she is an instinctive and characterful narrator who brings both warmth and drama to the words.
“Stories are a human need and children love being told them….music enhances the experience” says Miriam Margolyes in an interview on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune programme. Poulenc’s music has a charming naÏvety which makes it instantly accessible, but it’s also colourful and varied, and the piano part has several stand-alone descriptive pieces such as Lullaby, Reverie and Nocturne, which contain some of Poulenc’s best writing for the piano.
For pianist Simon Callaghan, this recording marks the start of a project to record all of Poulenc’s piano music for Nimbus, and is “the best way I could imagine to start this off” (Simon Callaghan speaking on Radio 3). Here his playing is responsive and lively, with a delightfully sparkly timbre in the upper registers, and an evocative ponderousness of elephant footsteps in bass chords. He told me via Twitter that he and Miriam “had such a ball” making the recording, and this is certainly evident in the piano sound which feels so spontaneous and inventive, infused with drama, humour and tenderness.
This charming recording of a children’s classic is sure to keep listeners young and old captivated.
The Story of Babar is released on the Nimbus label and is available now